Tag Archives: history

Places not to visit: Clipperton Island


Located far off the Pacific coast of Mexico, Clipperton Island is truly the destination for someone looking to “get away from it all.” Clipperton was found in various parts of the last millennium by Spanish and French explorers and has been in French colonial overseas possession for about two centuries, minus a period of dispute with Mexico over its claim, and was a center of mining and fishing operations at times.

So what might you expect to find on this island? Not much. Clipperton Island consists of a thin strip of land encircling a lagoon full of brackish water. There are no human inhabitants. There seems to be no workable soil to speak of, and the only point of interest aside from some clumps of palm trees is a 100 foot-tall rock.

A map of Clipperton Island.  (Source: Christian Jost (CC BY-SA 3.0))

A map of Clipperton Island. (Source: Christian Jost (CC BY-SA 3.0))

Why, then, would anyone bother with this place? Aside from the probably very complicated legal issues regarding Mexico and France’s territorial waters and resultant fishing and mining rights in the Pacific surrounding, it doesn’t have anything to offer, does it?

Well, it used to have plenty of something – guano. Guano is “the excrement of seabirds, cave-dwelling bats, pinnipeds, or (in English usage) birds in general” (source: Wikipedia.) Lots of islands in the Pacific happened to contain a lot of guano, probably as a result of birds living on said islands for thousands of years. As it happened, bird shit was highly sought after as a fertilizer by many countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the United States Congress even passed an act declaring that any US citizen could claim any island containing guano that was uninhabited and not held by any other country for the US. The US did claim a lot of Pacific islands on this basis and still holds some of them to this day, but Clipperton, being a French holding from the 18th century, was not among them. So those lucky French farmers were able to get their hands on the lucrative crap that must have resulted in nice crop yields.

Clipperton was visited on a fairly regular basis by miners looking for guano and by fishing and whaling vessels. Because of its both literal and figurative shittiness, however, the island was never permanently inhabited but once, when a Mexican settlement was established there. Said settlement was supplied by ship until 1915, when shipments were halted in the midst of World War I. The inhabitants were then required to live off fish and rainwater collected in boats. As a result of its isolation, the Clipperton settlement broke out into scurvy and mostly died, and the remaining man on the island reportedly lost his mind and lorded over the several remaining women and children and committed several serious crimes before being killed, either in self-defense or out of retribution, by one of the women. The survivors were soon thereafter rescued, and perhaps understandably, no one has tried to live on Clipperton Island since.

Clipperton Island isn’t an entirely bad place, though, if you’re a marine or avian biologist with an interest in the eastern Pacific. A lot of birds still make their homes on the island. A large amount of coral grows around the island, along with a diverse group of Pacific sea life. A species of bright orange crabs also lives on Clipperton, but put your shellfish fork away: their meat is poisonous.

Not on the menu.  (Source: Cedricguppy (CC-BY-SA-4.0))

Not on the menu. (Source: Cedricguppy (CC-BY-SA-4.0))

Getting to Clipperton Island is difficult, as it has no harbor or even a dock or anything and nobody goes there save a few scientific expeditions and maybe the occasional French patrol ship. But you probably shouldn’t visit anyway. In fact, you should just be happy that you live in a place with constant fresh water supplies and no poisonous crabs.


Ancient Mesopotamian dental care

After Anu had created heaven,
Heaven had created the earth,
The earth had created the rivers,
The rivers had created the marsh,
And the marsh had created the worm –
The worm went, weeping, before Shamash,
His tears flowing before Ea:
“What will you give me for food?
What will you give me to suck on?”
“I will give you the ripe fig and the apricot.”
“What good is the ripe fig and the apricot?
Lift me up, and assign me to the teeth and the gums!
I will suck the blood of the tooth,
and I will gnaw its roots at the gum!”
Because you have said this, O worm,
May Ea strike you with the might of his hand!

– An incantation against toothache found on a cuneiform tablet in Nineveh

The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia were pretty big on dental health. Evidence suggests that starting with the Sumerians of the 5th and 4th millennia B.C., the Mesopotamians cared about the health of their teeth and gums and even the freshness of their breath.

Health in Mesopotamia was maintained through a combination of medicine and magic, and the same was also true of dental health specifically. The surviving records lay out hundreds of recipes and recommendations written by Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian physicians.

One of these physicians provides us with one of the first recorded recommendations of a gum massage to treat gingivitis:

If a man’s teeth are all loose and decay sets in… thou shalt rub… on his teeth until blood comes out, and he shall recover.

Another tablet gives us a method to dispel “mouth-trouble” (possibly referring to inflammation):

If a man’s mouth has mouth-trouble, with gall-apples, ammi, mustard he shall cleanse his mouth and drink them in kurunnu-beer and shall recover. (I wish my dentist would order me to drink beer as a part of my dental hygiene routine.)

But Mesopotamian dentists were also concerned with more cosmetic dental issues. The same records contain recipes for mouthwash and stain-removal mixtures that include such ingredients as salt, pine turpentine, honey, oil, beer, lupin and turmeric, plus a feather to induce vomiting at some point in the procedure.

Despite not having the benefits of Oral-B toothbrushes or Colgate, some people in Mesopotamia seem to have practiced dental hygiene on a regular basis. Archaeological searches have revealed toothpicks made of gold, silver and bronze, sometimes as parts of vanity kits.

The people of Mesopotamia kept their teeth clean even under the constant threat of getting their city sacked by a bloody-minded conquering king, so you have no excuse for not flossing every day.

The people of Mesopotamia kept their teeth clean even under the constant threat of getting their city sacked by a bloody-minded conquering king, so you have no excuse for not flossing every day.

As with most other facets of ancient Mesopotamian life, religion played an active role in medical practice. Certain incantations were sometimes prescribed to work alongside a medical remedy, the idea presumably being that one or more of the gods would help the medicine do its job.

The toothache-related text found at Nineveh in interesting in this respect. Many ancient and medieval peoples believed that toothaches were caused by a worm that ate at the gums and gnawed through the teeth, boring holes and causing decay. Recounting the story of the creation of the worm and asking Ea to smack him down with the might of his hand suggests a magical element to dental care that no longer exists in modern dentistry (depending on your dentist, anyway.)

Try it at home!

If you’re tempted to try out some ancient dental techniques, you can start with this toothache remedy, to be used together with the incantation against toothache copied above:

Second-grade beer, the plant sa-kil-bir and oil thou shalt mix together; the incantation thou shalt recite three times thereupon and put the medicine upon the tooth.

So if you have some second-grade beer and sa-kil-bir in the back of your fridge, this is always an option. It beats paying thousands of dollars to have your teeth drilled by a modern dentist, doesn’t it?

Forrai, Judit. “The Beginnings of Dental Caries and its Treatments.” Archives of Oral Research, May 2009. pp. 187-192.

Paulissian, Robert. “Dental Care in Ancient Assyria and Babylonia.” Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society, Nov. 1993. pp. 96-116.

Terra Nullius: Bir Tawil

Imagine a land unclaimed by any country in the world. I know what you’re thinking: Here’s the place to start the great empire I’ve always dreamed of building.

There’s some bad news. Several people/groups have already claimed this land, and one man has gone so far as to create a flag, travel to the land and stick that flag in the ground in the name of his new state. The worse news, however, is that Bir Tawil, the land in question, has nothing that anyone could possibly want.


Pictured above, courtesy of Google Earth: the land in question. Bir Tawil (Arabic for “deep well”) is the trapezoid dotted out in the center of the photograph. It looks desolate from space, and indeed, it is; Bir Tawil is a patch of rocky desert about 2,000 square kilometers in area (about the area of a mid-sized US county) on the border between Egypt and Sudan. And it is unclaimed by both countries. In fact, each country claims that the other is Bir Tawil’s rightful administrator. What’s going on here?

To understand just why Bir Tawil is so unwanted, we have to look at early 20th century colonial African history. At the turn of the last century, Egypt and Sudan both were unofficially ruled by Britain. After a briefly successful Sudanese revolt against British rule in 1896, the British colonial administration recaptured Sudan alongside Egyptian forces and established a “condominium”, or joint rule, between Britain and Egypt over the reconquered country. This new arrangement required the drawing of a border between Egypt and Sudan, and the 1899 line cut straight through the 22nd parallel. A later map, however, shifted this line to better reflect the realities of the border between the two colonies, and Sudan gained the 20,000 square kilometer Hala’ib Triangle, a prime piece of Red Sea real estate, while the comparatively useless Bir Tawil south of the 1899 border went to Egypt.

The Hala'ib Triangle and Bir Tawil.  The 1899 border is the straight line, and the 1902 border is the one that creates the disputed territories.

The Hala’ib Triangle and Bir Tawil. The 1899 border is the straight line, and the 1902 border is the one that creates the disputed territories.

After independence, both Egypt and Sudan claimed Hala’ib, with Egypt upholding the 1899 border and Sudan pushing the 1902 border in opposition. As a strange quirk of this argument, neither country had any basis to claim Bir Tawil – so neither claimed it. Bir Tawil, as a result, is officially terra nullius. Nobody wants it. Which means you can go there and do whatever you want, right?

Well, that’s just the problem – there probably isn’t anything to do in Bir Tawil. There are good reasons Egypt and Sudan both prefer Hala’ib, which has actual settlements and a coastline, to Bir Tawil, which has no settlements, no natural resources, and no access to water. It’s a rocky desert withpatches of shrubs and stuff like that. Herders have used the land in the past, but nobody lives there and, again, there are good reasons for that.

This scene is from near Marrakesh, but it's probably pretty close to what Bir Tawil looks like. (Source: Johntarantino1, Creative Commons)

This scene is from near Marrakesh, but it’s probably pretty close to what Bir Tawil looks like. (Source: Johntarantino1, Creative Commons)

Naturally, the fact of Bir Tawil’s inaccessibility and hostility has not stopped idiots in other countries from claiming the land for themselves. Most recently, an American traveled to Bir Tawil and planted a flag there, declaring it the Kingdom of North Sudan and his seven year-old daughter the princess of it. It’s admirable that a parent would go so far to make his kid happy, but declaring your kids royalty of new made-up countries borders on spoiling them, doesn’t it?

In any case, neither Egypt nor Sudan have commented on Mr. Heaton’s claim on Bir Tawil, and it’s unlikely that they will ever countenance a third-party claim on the land, considering that a final agreement between the countries will require one of them to end up holding Bir Tawil anyway. And it’s just as well, because there is no reason to go to this patch of rock and sand. If you want to declare your own country, declare it in your own backyard or in your apartment. Nobody will stop you unless you do something dumb like declare war on your neighbors and lob projectiles into their yards. Bir Tawil is interesting as a question of international law, but that’s all it has going for it.